By Alex Binkley
In 60 years in the transportation business, Bob Ballantyne has had a front-row seat to watch sweeping changes reshape of the operations of the railways and their customers.
Bob started with Canadian Pacific in 1960 when railways still controlled both freight and passenger transportation in North America. That dominance drained away as the building of major highway systems opened the door to massive growth in long-haul trucking.
“It changed a lot for the railways and shippers,” Ballantyne says. During the same period, airlines scooped up much of the passenger business. With the erosion of freight and passenger traffic, many rail lines and stations were abandoned across the country.
During his 40-year career, he worked in CP’s engineering, signal, operating and marketing departments. In 1976, he became Vice-President of Canadian Pacific Consulting Services which got involved in advising on railway and transportation projects around the world.
In 1988, Ballantyne became President of The Railway Association of Canada, a post he held until his retirement in 2000. He switched hats and went to work in 2002 at Freight Management Association of Canada (FMA) to give shippers a stronger voice in dealing with the carriers and the federal government.
He helped found Coalition of Rail Shippers, a group of 18 industry associations whose member companies represent a major segment of the customer base of CN and CP. Ballantyne also served as the Canadian representative on the Board of Directors of Global Shippers Forum, including a stint as Chairman.
While he retired from FMA in late 2020, he remained a special advisor to it. He was succeeded by John Corey who joined FMA in January 2020 as Vice-President after more than 20 years at the Canadian Transportation Agency.
FMA selected Ballantyne as its Supply Chain Executive of the Year in 2020. “Bob has demonstrated a long-term commitment and sustained leadership in the transportation and logistics industry in Canada throughout his long career,” said FMA Chair Gary Fast, Vice-President of Transportation for Canadian Tire. “The Board felt that there is not a more worthy recipient of the 2020 Supply Chain Executive of the Year than Bob, in recognition and in honour of his achievements. Bob’s encyclopedic knowledge of the transportation industry, his reputation and his ability to work with diverse groups are respected in the transportation community, both in Canada and around the world.”
To appreciate the scope of change Ballantyne has witnessed in transportation, it’s worth noting that steam engines had just been phased out when he joined CP. The diesel locomotives that replaced them would seem puny compared to today’s powerhouses, as would most of the freight cars, and cabooses are long gone. The steel shipping container was yet to come, as was the integration of computers and digital technology into the everyday operation of the railways and other businesses.
Ballantyne recalled CP’s acquisition of its first computer in 1965 and it was the size of a truck. “There’s more computing power in a phone today than the 1965 mainframe.” But it was the beginning. The introduction of Centralized Traffic Control on the railways “really changed the operational control of trains across the country,” he recalled. He was involved in the installation of CTC from Calgary to Toronto.
Another major change was lengthening sidings to accommodate the longer freight trains that modern locomotives could handle.
Through mergers and acquisitions, the number of remaining mainline railways in North America has dwindled to a handful, which tend to have geographical regions to themselves, Ballantyne said. Over time, shippers have learned to work together in dealing with the railways and government regulators. Shippers take a long-term view of transportation and “make the case for the kinds of changes they need.”
FMA’s more than 65 members include large and small companies based across the country which purchase approximately $3 billion in freight services.